The U.S. transportation industry needs more skilled technicians, drivers, and supply chain and logistics experts. There’s a talent pool that far too often is overlooked: the military veteran community. These highly trained individuals know how to show up on time, follow orders, possess heightened attention to detail, work as a team, and took a pledge to put others' lives before their own.
And that’s just the most basic assessment true of any soldier, sailor, airman, or marine. Some already have CDLs, others can fix a truck while being shot at, and all have likely done some sort of preventive maintenance.
Capt. Mark Buckner (USNR), currently Kenworth’s battery-electric vehicles section manager, has worked with both sailors and soldiers in wartime, and he's lauded fellow service members’ ability to self-start, as well as “dive into a problem, make mistakes, fail fast, and figure it out.”
“You don't have to ask them to go and check the fuel filter or check the engine oil before you start the truck in the morning,” Buckner said. “They know that it has to be done in order to make sure that the truck stays on the road.”
Even if you already knew all these great reasons to hire a vet, you may not know how many are available. According to the Department of Defense, on average about 200,000 service members separate each year, all looking for a new purpose, a new life. The total veteran population in 2021 was 16.5 million, though nearly a quarter of that are 75 or older. While possibly capable, those old timers may not want to deal with all those newfangled aftertreatment systems and automatic transmissions.
Another thing you might be unaware of is that to attract these desirable employees, you have to put in some effort. For starters, these outgoing servicemembers have a hard enough time figuring out where to live, as well as how to live post-military.
“I think every company can do a better job working to bring veterans into their operation—too often, [recruiting efforts are] too passive,” asserted Brent Yeagy, president and CEO of Wabash, and formerly a nuclear-trained officer in the Navy. “As an employer, I believe if you're a U.S. company, you have a duty to respect that service member; you have a duty to work to help them make that transition. You owe them.”
Yeagy backs that statement up by actively seeking out veterans. The trailer and truck body manufacturer has 6,000 total employees, with 400 veterans. Prior to the pandemic, Wabash had 7,000 employees and 350 veterans.
But how can employers do a better job? It turns out there are a lot of ways (check out the sidebar of resources below).
Ease vets’ return to civilian life
During a webinar held on Nov. 9, WrenchWay, a company that helps auto, diesel, and collision techs and shops find each other and promote the profession, the topic of how difficult it is for new vets to find their footing came up.
“Time is uneasy for a veteran when they get out,” said Scott Jenkins, Asbury Automotive Group regional fixed operations director for Florida, who was a submarine missile technician from 1986 to 1994. “A lot of things were done for them. They really did not have to think so much about what they had to do when they moved on.”
There’s really not much time to think about anything except the mission or when you can hit the rack, and the military provided housing, food, medical, and dental.
Roger Gutierrez, director of fixed operations at Biggers Auto Group in Wheeling, Illinois, advised that other dealerships and shops add flexibility into veterans’ schedules until they get settled. In Gutierrez’s experience, new veterans he has employed may have to leave to handle house inspections and moving vans.
Going even further, Gutierrez related that interviews he’s done new vets have also included their significant others, who are just as important to the process. Jenkins noted unlike typical technicians coming out of auto or diesel school, military members are more likely to have a spouse and children.
“You’ve got to do a little research for [these families] and talk about the schools in the area or whatever to try to try to get them to want to commit to you,” Jenkins added.
Any extra work on the employer’s part is worth it in Gutierrez’s mind, as veterans “are incredibly coachable; they’re used to being led…it’s what we’re all looking for as managers.”
Yeagy advises that to ease a servicemember’s smooth exit, prospective employers start to approach them prior to the end of their enlistment or commission.
Provide resources and a fair wage
In a shop, technicians are usually required to supply most of their own tools, which can get very pricey. An E-5 (such as a staff sergeant in Air Force, sergeant in Army or Marines, or Petty Officer Second Class in Navy or Coast Guard) with more than four years experience makes less than $37,000 per year. You could get a little more with things like sea pay or drill pay, and you a little more for basic allowance for housing and subsistence, but given that a general work week can be 80 or more hours (Editor's note: At times I would clock more than 100 hours/week at sea), that’s around $8.30, or a buck over the federal minimum wage.
“Really, it's kind of almost embarrassing what we pay an active service member,” Jenkins noted.
We can discuss in another forum how shameful that is, but the point here is these folks might need some help with tools.
Former marine Jim Toussaint, division operations manager at Worldwide Equipment Inc., a heavy-duty truck dealer, said his company offers new employees $2,500 in tools, which belong to them after 24 months. Between 16-18% of Worldwide’s employees are veterans.
Jenkins said Asbury also helps with providing tools. Gutierrez noted one of his veteran technicians received a vocational grant of $900 to buy tools, which was contingent on the employer verifying he was hired.
As far as pay, Toussaint knows what it’s like to struggle after the service, noting that he left the military with $1,000 to his name. A shop should want to provide proper compensation, though translating military experience to the commercial vehicle fleet side can be difficult.
To ensure techs with military experience are placed at the right pay scale, Toussaint said the supervisor, shop foreman, and he will query the vet on what type of work they did to get an idea of the scope and complexity. Then the employee is monitored over 90 to 120 days, and that person may be moved up or down from the initial pay based on actual performance.
“Most of the time, we find they have better skills than anticipated,” Toussaint said.
Gutierrez offered that at Biggers Auto Group, veterans will shadow an experienced technician for 30 days, and then management and the mentor will meet to assess where that new hire should be in terms of pay.
Jenkins warned one thing you don’t want to do is undervalue vets.
“You got to have a decent wage to provide them, he said. “That would almost be a slap in the face to offer him $13 an hour to go change oil. Not too many would accept that, number one, and even if they did it would be a ‘for now’ thing and you wouldn’t retain them.”
Acknowledge veterans’ baggage and provide assistance
WrenchWay president and co-founder Jay Goninen, who moderated the webinar, said that some employers have told him they don’t hire veterans
“I have unfortunately heard it and it blows me away that anybody would ever think that way,” he said, adding, “When I looked at that, what I see is maybe a weak leader.”
He advises anyone who thinks that way not let themselves get intimidated by dealing with vets and instead, attempt to understand them and “adapt your management style.”
That’s a solid sentiment if the employer down on vets is saying that because they think they are somehow less than, or that they had to join the military because they couldn’t handle the rigors of the civilian world. If a company has someone like that in management, a vet wouldn’t want to work for that clown show anyway.
But on the other hand, no one should feel forced to hire a vet if they are not ready to embrace all of what that means.
According to StopSoldierSuicide.com, there’s a reason why more than one in 10 vets have been diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder (so it’s likely much higher), and why so many are homeless and commit suicide. It’s because employers, coworkers, and families look at vets as a binary: they’re either ticking time bombs or unimpeachable heroes. That heroin-addicted vet might be incredibly skilled and talented, and that perfect employee could be hiding unimaginable despair.
As a manager or supervisor, you’re job is to recognize both cases and then act accordingly to get them the help they need. If an expensive piece of shop equipment experiences some downtime, you don’t throw it out. And making a few phone calls to veterans resource organizations and having a few honest conversations doesn’t cost a dime.
For reasons like this, Wabash’s Yeagy cautioned that employers should not just hire vets for the sake of it.
“You have to be very purposeful about it,” he said. “If you just bring a military member in, sometimes it's a real crapshoot as to culturally if will you align.”
Yeagy also noted that certain recruiters are incentivized to push military members on employers. “That’s not always in everybody's best interest,” he said.
“You’ve got a whole lot of conflict-oriented people—the largest number we've had since World War II— who carry baggage because they defended us,” Yeagy said. “Companies cannot walk past the fact that they come with baggage, and they need to be sensitive and programmatic on how they handle that.”
He added vets should also be “transparent and honest” if they have any issues that can lead to bigger problems.
“If the two parties don't understand each other, that can create match problems and then performance problems,” Yeagy said. “It's a real issue that we've got going on right now.”
The best practice tip here is to familiarize yourself with what post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is and what it isn’t, and remember that a solder doesn’t need to have seen their friend die in their arms to react differently to high stress situations. The military ingrains a mission-first mentality, putting it above self; and a soldier or sailor may act differently to what other deem minor. Yeagy calls this going into a “command-and-control” mindset, triggered by high anxiety.
“If you're not aware of what's going on, a company can just go, ‘That’s a bad performer; that person has a bad attitude. They don't have skills.’
“No, no, no,” Yeagy responded emphatically. “There's deeper things going on. We can fix that.
We can help that person succeed. And we have a duty to be better at doing that. Or that veteran end up not staying in the workforce—and then worse things happens.”
One final note: Know how to handle PTSD or other issues, just like you should know how to handle a fire or accident, but don’t expect it to happen.
“I don't feel as though [PTSD issues] characterizes the majority,” said Brad Watson, VP of program management and operations strategy at Navistar, and a USMC captain who is also president of Navistar’s internal employee resource group, Military Veterans at Navistar.
“But for those who do, there are obviously resources available to them through the VA and other venues to help address the address some of those things, and I would encourage them all to do so,” he continued. “But by and large, we veterans are a strong and very capable, highly motivated community of Americans.”